With feed being the highest cost in livestock production, farmers use pasture as a natural way to meet the nutritional needs of their animals. Animals allow agriculturalists to utilize land that may be unsuitable for traditional cropping in a way that benefits the property itself. Cattle, sheep, horses, or goats can use grass to produce meat and milk while preserving wildlife habitats and keeping soils healthy through nutrient cycling.
As small-acreage farming continues to gain popularity, small animal ownership is also on the rise. Smaller grazing animals like sheep and goats have an advantage over cattle in terms of size and adaptability. Goats require less acreage, no heavy equipment to handle, and have a quicker return on investment than cattle. Cattle producers looking to diversify their assets and add extra cash flow also add goats to existing systems. The following are a few considerations for those looking to add goats to their property.
Diversify Your Forages
Diverse forage sources provide increased nutrition and performance to livestock. While most assume a goat will eat just about anything, they are actually picky eaters. Cattle and horses tend to prefer grasses, sheep like a considerable quantity of forbs (chicory, brassicas, etc) in their diets, and goats prefer browse (saplings, briars, privet, honeysuckle, sumac, etc). Their mouth design enables them to pick small leaves, flowers, fruits and other plant parts, thus choosing only the most nutritious available feed.
Surprisingly, a goat’s preference for browse doesn’t just keep the landscape clean. It also provides exceptional nutrition. Honeysuckle leaves and buds have a Total Digestible Energy (TDN) content of over 70% and crude protein (CP) over 16%. Young oak leaves average a TDN of 64% and 18% CP. Mimosa leaves average 72% TDN and 21% CP. For comparison, a high quality bermudagrass hay you might purchase to feed your animals would commonly fall in the area of 55% TDN and 12% CP.
In spite of their grazing preferences, goats can be grazed on pasture alone. In a pasture, goats tend to graze from the top to the bottom of plants. This behavior results in even grazing and favors a rotation with goats grazing first then other animals such as cattle.
Rotation is a key tool in the battle against parasite infestations of goats on pasture. Our climate is ideal for stomach worms whose larvae migrate from animal feces up blades of grasses where animals can eat them. Rotating goats off a pasture when the grazing is still at least 4-6 inches high decreases larvae ingestion. Forages with high levels of condensed tannins such as sericea lespedeza also help lower infections.
Choose Appropriate Fencing
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the challenges of fencing goats. I often joke with new goat owners that if a fence will hold water, it will probably hold in your goats. Although that is an exaggeration, goats are one of the more difficult livestock animals to keep in confinement. They love to climb and are notorious for slipping through anywhere their head will fit. If they can’t get through it, at the very least they will get their heads stuck in the fence until a compassionate passerby intervenes.
In addition to the challenge of keeping goats in, a goat farmer must keep potential predators out. Roaming pet dogs and coyotes are a consistent threat to goat herds in our area. Choose tall, rigid fencing that is also electrified when possible. Local stores have fencing options designed for small ruminant animals if you’re installing a fence for the first time. Previously installed fences meant for cattle or horses can also be adapted to goats by adding a strand or two of hot wire in strategic locations.
Water, Shelter, and Minerals
Like other livestock, goats require shelter, fresh water, and mineral supplementation. They need something to buffer them from weather extremes. Three-sided sheds work well and shade trees are always a great addition to pasture.
High-quality mineral supplements should be a staple in every pasture. Selenium and copper supplies can be marginal in many areas of the state. Place minerals inside a shed or in a covered feeder to prevent rain exposure. Be sure the mineral mix you are using is suited for the species being grazed. Where goats often need additional copper, too much can be deadly to sheep. In co-grazing systems, you may need to supplement copper to goats in pill form.
As always, reach out to your local Extension office with additional questions you have if you are looking to add goats to your farm.